Biophilic Design: Improving Both Architecture and Psychology

Biophilia, a term first coined by E.O. Wilson in 1984, refers to the inherent human inclination to affiliate with nature and seek connection with the rest of life. Meaning “love of life or living system,” biophilia was first used by Erich Fromm to describe a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital. Biophilic design is therefore a concept used in architecture and the building industry to reconnect individuals with the natural environment by incorporating living organisms, natural lighting and organic shapes and features. 

When using the term phili, or friendship, Aristotle suggested a concept of reciprocity in a similar way that friendships benefit both parties, often in more ways than one. Phobias on one hand are the aversion and fears of things in the environment while philias are attractions and positive responses toward organisms, species, habitats and surroundings. 

The world of architecture and design is finally catching on to what our bodies have been telling us all along—that we cannot live without our connection to nature and we must honor our natural rhythms. Biophilic design is far from a new concept and dates as far back as the hanging gardens of Babylon.


What are the Characteristics of Biophilic Design in Architecture?

Biophilic design in architecture is defined as design that supports both the sociological and psychological components of our humanity while unburdening the cognitive system. An environment void of nature can have a negative effect on health, productivity and well-being.

Biophilic design is an innovative way to harness our desire to seek connection with the rest of life in order to create natural environments for us to live, work and learn. Not every space can be designed to incorporate all the principles of biophilic design, but there are often many elements that can collectively enhance the interior and the well-being of those within it.


Elements of Biophilic Design

How can we easily incorporate biophilic design elements into our daily lives? Biophilic design encompasses more than just the addition of a potted plant or an extra window here and there. Certainly, vegetation is important but should be incorporated more along the lines of living walls or cascading vines hanging from the ceiling. Natural light, fresh air, organic textures and materials and views of nature are also important.

While the incorporation of vegetation in exterior spaces is common, bringing vegetation into interior spaces is where we see the most opportunity for innovation. We can look back to the hanging gardens of Babylon for inspiration and bring them indoors to amplify the feeling of connection with nature as well as to improve indoor air quality. Studies show that increased vegetation can increase physical health, performance, and productivity and reduce stress. 

An unseen aspect of biophilic design is air which includes ventilation, temperature, humidity, and consistently flowing fresh, clean air. These conditions can be applied through the addition of more windows and doors, skylights, modern ventilation and air purification systems. 

The aspect of water in biophilic design should be considered multi-sensory and can be used in buildings to offer connection with movement, sound, touch, and sight, and has the added benefit of a calming effect that also inspires creativity. This can be accomplished through bodies of water, fountains, aquariums, and simulated rainstorms to nurture vegetation. Water features can also be timed with the natural rhythms of the seasons or even the day-to-day changes in weather. 

Fire is yet another element that one would not immediately connect with biophilic design but is easily incorporated through a fireplace. Less obvious uses could be through color, warmth, and movement that mimic the natural movements of fire. 

Finally, there is light! Indeed, this is our favorite element! Letting the light in may arguably be the most important feature of biophilic design. Without light, vegetation cannot survive and the same can be said of the inhabitants of the building. Our bodies are governed by circadian rhythms which are regulated by natural light.  

The circadian rhythm does more than tell the body when to wake up and when to go to sleep. It also regulates the release of hormones that help the body stay energetic and alert during the daytime and have a healthy, restful sleep at night. Unlike natural and biophilic lighting, artificial lighting disrupts the circadian rhythm, leading to problems with attention during the day and restlessness at night.

Allowing the natural light and weather to be observed through windows, glass walls, doors, and railings are all critical to biophilic architecture and design. Natural landscapes can be mimicked but bringing them in through the use of glass is far more effective in promoting the natural biorhythms and innate creativity we all possess.

Images of nature have been proven to be emotionally and intellectually satisfying and can also be incorporated through paintings, photos, sculptures and murals.


Why Is Biophilic Design Important?

Biophilic architecture and design can reduce stress and improve cognitive function and creativity while also improving our overall well-being and expediting healing. It can reduce blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and improve mental engagement. 

The space you inhabit has a dramatic effect on you. It elicits a strong psychological, physiological and neurological response and impacts our ability to process stressors. This is directly related to how a person feels and influences stress levels, tiredness, feelings of being overwhelmed, and the desire to give up on daily tasks. Areas where sunlight penetrates a building have been directly and positively linked to health and greater workplace satisfaction.

Letting the light in with glass allows us to sync with the time of day and season and supports the way we orient ourselves in our spaces, environments and relationships. It also promotes comfort and safety which again allows us to tap into our creativity and more easily collaborate with others. This is done by lowering our defense mechanisms and calming the nervous system. 

Discomfort and pain are known to cause the greatest distractions, so creating an environment that is comfortable and healthy is critical. Artificial lights flicker intermittently which can cause headaches and repetitive eyestrain—painful distractions that sunlight does not create. Natural lighting gives building occupants greater contentment and pleasure, which helps sharpen concentration and aids focus on tasks that need to be completed.


The Importance of Light in Biophilic Design

When we look at light in nature, we see the mesmerizing qualities of light streaming in through a tree-top canopy or the awe-inspiring power of sunlight breaking through dark clouds or rising over the mountains in the morning sunrise. Moonlight can feel energizing and firelight can spark a sense of serenity. 

Research shows that dynamic and variable light scenes provide the greatest stimulation in the brain. Sunlight is the foundation of life, and as such it supports those elements of design that provide direct contact to the natural environment. So, let the light in!


How To Let The Light In

Glass, glass and more glass! Glass ceilings wherever possible and, if not, skylights instead. Glass walls and doors are an excellent alternative, especially with many newly innovated selections in privacy glass. And let’s not forget glass railings! Building codes require a railing, so why not employ your life-safety device as an element of biophilic design and let the light continue to stream through?

With all this information on biophilic design in mind, it’s important to consider the role of the most critical element in biophilic design—light—and its manifest benefits to workplace creativity. Glass fosters a deep-rooted human connection to the outside world and allows nature to nourish employees as it was intended to. Leading studies suggest that more than 60% of office employees report a feeling of satisfaction when entering a bright, naturally lit office at the beginning of a work day. Indeed, accents of green, yellow and blue only serve to boost that percentage.

It’s no coincidence that early childhood educators heavily involve outdoor experiences as a part of classroom activities and curriculums. Studies have shown that encouraging such outdoor exploration in children increases their concentration, attention span and positive behavior. Being outdoors has the added benefit of reducing hyperactivity and anxiety.

Naturally, we all want to feel good at work and we want the same for our children at school. As it turns out, there are more than just aesthetics at play when incorporating light and glass in architecture. Leading researchers show that positive emotions and connection with the environment promote creativity and long-term memory, and encourage a higher level of cognitive functioning. Beyond that, the design of the workplace has been shown to influence an applicant’s decision as to whether to accept a job offer or remain with a company.

Beyond productivity, lighting and biophilic design elements represent a significant return on investment in the construction realm. Buyers are more likely to splurge on houses that have views of nature. In fact, buyers are willing to spend nearly 10% more on homes with excellent landscaping and a surprising ~60% more on properties that overlook water. Such returns on investment help offset the slightly higher costs of biophilic design that occur due to the addition of natural elements that require maintenance, as well as higher-priced organic items.



While the science in support of biophilic design is still emerging, we intuitively know it is heading in the right direction. It’s time to listen to that gut feeling. When asking people about their favorite memories or vacation spots, they often recall an outdoor component to that experience. Considering that nearly 68% of the population will live in urban environments by 2050, it is best we start reconnecting with nature in unique and innovative ways. With that in mind, the next time you are redecorating or designing a project, don’t forget to let the light in with Wagner glass railing systems

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